An engaged, informed citizenry was a goal of the Founding Fathers in establishing free public schools. A renewed commitment is needed to restore civic education alongside the three R’s.
CAN you name the branches of the federal government? Can you locate Syria on a map and name two of its neighbors? Do you know what rights you were given by the First and Second amendments to the Constitution? Can you name your congressman or one of your senators?
If you aced this quiz, you’re among a minority of Americans. There’s no insurance that today’s politicians or presidential candidates can do so. And that’s a problem.
Civic knowledge and engagement are critical to the survival of the republic.
A bipartisan group of former members who support civic education reform
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., 1981-2011
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., 1981-2007
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga, 1995-2015
Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, 1995-2015
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., 1995-2015
Rep. David Skaggs, D-Colo., 1987-1999
Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., 1993-2015
Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., 1997-2011
Rep. Michael Flanagan, R-Ill., 1995-1997
Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., 1995-1999
Rep. Cal Dooley, D-Calif., 1992-2005
Rep Mike Oxley, R-Ohio, 1981-2007
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., 1977-2013
Historically, American students learned the basics about government in elementary and high school, then moved on in college to more sophisticated moral and philosophical debates about life.
But civic education has virtually disappeared from too many of our schools and universities.
A former dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Ellen Condiffe Lagemann, rightly argued for integration of civic education into core requirements and modeling civic engagement through institutions of higher learning. Doing so, she wrote in Harvard Magazine, could prevent the current political polarization and skepticism of government and enhance the civic idealism that has been the bedrock of our democracy.
A number of former members of Congress representing both political parties are determined to reverse the decline in civic education. Nurturing in young Americans an understanding of U.S. history, economics, government and foreign policy would lead to greater economic opportunity for those struggling the most and enable the critical experience of becoming a true citizen.
A congressional resolution calling for renewed emphasis on a public-school civic curriculum is paramount. The 2014 report of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that only 23 percent of American eighth-graders are proficient in civics. Other surveys show that Americans are apathetic about voting and don’t understand the differences between the two political parties.
Several years ago, Newsweek magazine asked 1,000 Americans to take the citizenship test immigrants must pass to gain citizenship. The results prompted Newsweek to ask, “How Ignorant are Americans?” Ignorant enough that 27 percent could not name the vice president, 61 percent didn’t know the length of term for a U.S. senator and 63 percent couldn’t identify the number of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Opportunity Nation, a bipartisan coalition of nonprofits, educational institutions and community leaders, and the Citi Foundation partnered last year to explore how civic engagement can enhance economic opportunities for young Americans.
Their report found that “volunteering and participation in service or civic groups can accelerate the accrual of social capital and professional skills … including better jobs, higher wages and affordable housing.”
Many other national organizations, including the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s nonprofit iCivics and the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools offer civic learning resources for teachers to immerse students in the political process.
Other research has confirmed that civil learning leads to better citizenship in the form of increased volunteerism, neighbors working together to solve problems, higher voter turnout — particularly among young voters — and the development of a greater sense of national pride.
An engaged, informed citizenry was among the goals of the Founding Fathers in establishing free public schools. A renewed commitment to their goal must begin in those schools, restoring civic education alongside the three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic).
Though we no longer serve in elective office, we care deeply about the success and perpetuation of our political system. We believe American society would improve if future generations understand more about government and are encouraged to participate in public service.
With a resolve to help the next generation better engage as citizens, we also realize the importance for all Americans to increase their knowledge of how America developed, better understand the concepts contained in the Constitution and be more knowledgeable about public policy.
Nothing less than the future of our democracy is at stake.
Information in this article, originally published March 13, 2016, was corrected March 14, 2016. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Sen. Byron Dorgan’s state he represented in the Senate. He was North Dakota’s senator.